BEIJING • The murders are scripted. The money is real. In cities throughout China, young people are flocking to clubs to play a game that can be translated as "scripted homicide", in which they become different characters and spend hours solving fake murders.
This macabre entertainment is expected to generate more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in revenue this year.
The game's growing popularity has sparked some concerns from Chinese officials about the sometimes gothic or gory content. It has also led to a proliferation of clubs and competition for new and compelling scripts that players and owners say has become cutthroat.
"There's a huge demand for good scripts," said Shanghai resident Zhang Yi, 28, who played more than 90 games in just over a year. "The script is the foundation to everything in this game."
Scripted homicides, known as jubensha in Chinese, require players to gather in a group to discuss a fake murder. Each player is assigned a character from a script, including one who plays the murderer. Then they engage in an elaborate role-playing game, asking questions of the host and each other, until they determine which one of them did the deed.
In one club in Beijing, for example, players gather in a fantastical martial arts school where they don robes and assume roles like a peach fairy or a dragon. The script offers character backgrounds, relationships and potential storylines.
The plot develops as the players go around the table, talking in character, taking hooks from the script and the host. In the end, they vote on who they think the murderer might be.
A successful, dramatically scripted homicide offers laughs, tension and even tears.
"Players cry a lot," said Mr Poker Zhang, who owns a script-writing business in Chengdu, Sichuan.
The whodunits provide an alternative for young Chinese people who spend increasing amounts of time on their screens. The games also provide opportunities for them to mingle, something that can be rare in China, according to Dr Kecheng Fang, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The games provide "a participatory experience and a way of socialising, which is missing from the life of many Chinese young people".
For Ms Zhang, the player from Shanghai, scripted homicides have become one of her primary ways to meet people. She said she spends weekends with the people she met, and the game has "replaced a lot of other activities in my life".
The coronavirus pandemic helped, too, with travel restrictions leaving young people stranded in their hometowns.
"I couldn't leave Beijing for two months," said veterinary medicine student Gong Jin. "I felt bored, so I often played script murder."
The 20-year-old now works at a club part-time.
Jubensha has become so popular that the Chinese authorities have become concerned about their subject matter.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency blamed such games for distorting reality for young players. The scripts need to show "corrective value guidance" and spread "positive energy", it said.
Plainclothes officers recently played more than eight hours at four clubs in Shaanxi province. They confiscated 16 "illegally published" scripts that contained "bloody and gruesome" elements.
The scripts are similar to video games, TV and films, "and are therefore subject to content censorship", said Dr Fang. "Especially since the government seems eager to set a high moral standard, it's paying attention to the so-called 'bloody and gruesome' content."
Role-playing games have been popular in China for years. But scripted homicides really took off around 2015, when reality shows with names like Lying Man, Dinner Party Seduction, and later Who's The Murderer, showed celebrities playing whodunits.
Naturally, members of the audience wanted to play, too. Clubs started opening, fans poured in, and a new pastime took off.
Last year, the number of scripted murder enterprises registered in China totalled about 6,500, an increase of more than 60 per cent from the prior year.
A "retail" script that can be sold to any number of clubs can cost about US$80 (S$108), said Ms Wang Yihan, 28, who owns four script homicide clubs in Shanghai and also writes and distributes the mysteries.
A "city-limited script", which can be sold only to a handful of clubs in the same city, can sell for about US$300. An exclusive script for only one club, she said, can cost as much as about US$900.
"Great scripts are extremely rare," Ms Wang said, adding that the pursuit of scripts can result in real crimes.
"Scripts are constantly being copied, pirated and sold for cents on the Internet," she said. "That's the single biggest problem that club owners face."
On Taobao, a bundle of 3,000 scripts can be bought for just US$2.
The piracy has some club owners welcoming the attention that government officials are increasingly paying to the business. Ms Wang and others are openly asking for regulators to step in and clean up the industry, to prevent bribery among script distributors and protect material from being stolen.
"Creation is inherently difficult," said Ms Zhang, in Shanghai, "and piracy has dealt a huge blow to the industry."